The Magnolia Tree

The Magnolia Tree
By Michael Griffith. Directed by Sara Grenfell. La Mama Theatre, Carlton VIC. 17-28 May 2017

Unashamedly a provocative ‘play for discussion’ – at the end of which the audience is asked to vote on the characters’ choices - The Magnolia Tree is no dry, academic exercise.  It dramatizes a situation – and a moral dilemma – particularly pertinent and pressing for Baby Boomers and an increasing number of Gen Xers. 

And that is, what to do about Mum or Dad who’s not just increasingly infirm or dependent but whose identity is disappearing into Alzheimer’s or dementia?  Become a fulltime carer?  Get your selfish siblings to do their bit?  Get the old folks into a nursing home?  Which one?  Some of them are pretty awful.  And what’s that going to cost?  And what, in turn, will that cost those left behind?

The Magnolia Tree has two sisters and their brother facing these questions.  Michael Griffith has built his characters with a great deal of details specific to them, so that they are not ‘any family’ but this family – and yet it is not difficult for the audience to see themselves and their own decisions (immediate or looming) right there on stage. 

Childless Vicky (Helen Hopkins) has been the carer for Mum for a long time.  Mum’s upstairs at the family home, with Alzheimer’s so advanced she no longer recognises any of them.  Vicky’s sister Deborah (Rohana Hayes), a bit counter-culture hippy-trippy, is a single mother with two sons, desperate to give them a good future, struggling to have her own organic vegetable business.  Phlegmatic brother Jack (Ezra Bix), Mum’s favourite, has a successful real estate business – but not so successful that he can solve the financial problems of his sisters.  Vicky has been around the nursing homes and of course the best ones are cripplingly expensive – and the cheaper ones stink.  Since Vicky had a gambling problem, their only asset now is the house, but they can’t sell it until Mum dies…  

And so these siblings, at the end of their tethers, circle around and around the either/or of their problems. 

Ms Hopkins is completely convincing in her moving portrayal of Vicky’s hollow-eyed, shut-in exhaustion, her guilt and her yearning for love and an escape almost within reach.  Mr Bix appears at first to give us a Jack who is, shall we say, lacking in affect, but we come to realise that buttoned-down Jack is by necessity keeping himself under control: emotions break through all the more powerfully by contrast to his initial ‘cold’ restraint - and we come to believe his love for his sisters. 

Rohana Hayes gets a lot of laughs as her hostile-dependent character Deborah vehemently defends her 180º turns, contradictions and rationalisations, her dishonesty and, finally, her ruthlessness.  Defends rather too vehemently perhaps: Ms Hayes goes over the top and her emphatic performance is unfortunately out of kilter with her fellow cast.  But perhaps this is director Sara Grenfell’s decision since Deborah provides the comic relief in the unenviable three-way power struggle in which they are all trapped.

It’s unusual to see such a naturalistic set at La Mama, but this is a naturalistic play and the feel of a neglected, cluttered lower middle-class home is right.  Design is by Adrienne Chisholm. 

The play runs seventy unrelenting minutes.  The writing is sometimes a little rough – you can sense the wheels spinning with some repetition – but the challenging intention is unmistakeable and the implications unavoidable.  The audience ‘vote’ at the end could be a revelation.

Michael Brindley

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